On those clean, cloudless days in autumn, the mountains — hazy and humidity-hidden most days — would come into sharp relief. They unfurled across the northern horizon like great blue billows. Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, a city teasingly close to the Blue Ridge Mountains, though not a part of them, I looked at that landscape with longing. The view on those purified days was so arresting, it gave me a feeling akin to having crossed the Great Plains, beholding, finally, the majestic Rockies.
I knew the more distant waves and folds belonged to another state, and to an entirely different state of mind. In the universe of my youth, South Carolina was hot and flat and Deep South, containing a smidgen of not-so-mighty mountains in its northwest corner. North Carolina, by contrast, was this Eden with translucent streams, mountains more than a mile high, and endless serpentine roads through endless forests — deep, dark forests that looked primeval. Even the word “north” in the state’s name gave an air of cool refreshment.
One of the roads writhing through that wrinkled terrain, U.S. Highway 276, started near my house and, throughout my South Carolina upbringing, made me feel connected to the wonders of western North Carolina. If I just kept riding my 10-speed north on that big, busy highway, past the franchised food, car dealerships, parking lots, strip malls, and gas stations, I could wade into the feet-numbing waters of the Davidson River or gaze out on Cold Mountain.
My earliest memories of mountain trips with the family all include U.S. Highway 276: the rocky steps down to Connestee Falls; the boutiques of Brevard; the shattering spill of Looking Glass Falls. I have taken my own kids along these hairpin, hair-raising curves, but on one weekend in October — that most resplendent of months on 276 — I go alone, my attention undivided, to be immersed in a bedlam of brilliance.
I roll down the windows, turn off the radio, and listen to the leaves crackling beneath the steel-belted radials. Driving is such a guilty pleasure, burning plenty of fuel but few calories, yet the pageant of yellows and reds streaming across my windshield invite me to sit back and enjoy the show. I would no more miss an October drive in the mountains than a deer hunter would miss opening day, or an angler would miss the springtime spawn of rockfish. This is appointment road tripping, a pilgrimage I anticipate with as much vigor as the jersey-clad legions bound for the stadiums.
I pull into the Whistlestop Market for apples. To bite into a mountain-grown apple is to taste the essence of autumn, the crispness and tang of the season. Crispin. Hoople. Winesap. Ozark Golden. Fortune. Russet. North Carolina Rome. Arkansas Black.
Some women from Charleston, South Carolina, 30-something in age, might as well have stumbled over a clearance sale at Belk. “Omigosh! There are too many choices,” says Lindsey Keys. “Look how beautiful these apples are. They’re just gorgeous!”
They, too, have been dawdling along 276 — “We’re having a girls’ weekend” — where the word-of-mouth about this mouthwatering fruit is far better than any in-your-face “EXIT NOW” billboard. “Everyone’s been talking about these apples, that they were just incredible,” says Debbie Hart. “We had to check them out.”
The Whistlestop is owned by Charlie and Jane Rhodes, along with their son Austin and his wife, Laura, who are pulling duty behind the store’s counter with its view of the jars of preserves, jams, and honey. After vacationing in the area for years, the former flatlanders bought this produce stand and moved to these mountains full-time about 15 years ago, leaving the mugginess of Charleston for good. “Even in the summertime, it gets cool at night,” Jane says. “We love it up here.”
I tell of my daylong itinerary to drive the whole 60-mile length of U.S. Highway 276 in North Carolina, to which Jane replies: “It’s gorgeous right up to Waynesville. And every inch is more beautiful than what you’ve already been through.”
With a bulging bag of apples on my passenger seat, I press on. Before long, a weathered, wooden, zero-maintenance structure appears on the left, next to a trout pond with a chainsaw-carved black bear sitting in a tiny boat. Signs announce “Wood Carvings” and “Farwood 4 Sale.” The building, which has become a quirky landmark on 276, has gone through several incarnations over the years. At my passing, it’s still Uncle Buck’s Rustic Treasures, hawking chainsaw art. When you pass through … there’s no telling.
I find a woman who works here named Crockett Hendricks — “I’m a descendant of Davy,” she says — showing off her carvings of pine knots. She holds up one with an old man’s face and flowing beard chiseled into it. Behind her, a young man with a two-day growth of stubble drills at a wooden bear with the precision of a dentist hollowing out a molar.
Beyond pine-knot art, Hendricks has another passion: riding motorcycles. “This is my favorite road on a motorcycle, bar none,” she says of 276. “This is better than the Dragon’s Tail,” referring to the famously curvy stretch of U.S. Highway 129 near the Tennessee line.
My mode of transportation is a pickup truck from the last century, fully equipped with rust splotches and customized with sand-and-clay-carpeted floorboards. I feel more roughneck than tough-guy motorcyclist, what with my plaid flannel shirt and basic, loose-fit jeans. They are comfortable attire for getting out and walking a trail and clambering over boulders.
These falls are among about 250 waterfalls in Transylvania County, which proclaims itself the “Land of Waterfalls,” a point of pride splashed on the welcome signs along 276. The name of this county, Transylvania, has long stoked my imagination. I always assumed it was inspired by the gloomily wooded, mountainous region in Romania where Dracula did his bloodthirsty deeds.
In truth, the county was named for colonial-era land speculators from North Carolina who formed the Transylvania Company. In Latin, trans means “across” and silva means “woods.” It’s a less romantic origin — no vampires lurking in the rhododendron thickets — but in a county half carpeted by the Pisgah National Forest, the name is dead-on.
The county seat, Brevard, is the kind of town where the sidewalks beg to be strolled and where delis, galleries, and shops invite close inspection. In the center of town, where U.S. Highway 276 makes a right-angle turn to share the road with U.S. Highway 64, the White Squirrel Shoppe sells various and sundry thingamajigs that capitalize on the peculiar snow-colored squirrels found in the area.
Local history has it that the white squirrels originated from a carnival truck. Two of them got loose in the wild and began breeding, which is how I come to spot one darting through the gardens at Silvermont Mansion, a streak of white through the shadowy understory.
For the next 20 miles, up and beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway, a nearly unbroken forest hugs 276 with its dizzying diversity: hemlocks, mountain laurel, rhododendron, white oaks, red oaks, yellow poplars, sycamores, maples, shagbark hickories, sweet gums. In October, they all collaborate to set off a Kodachrome explosion.
The road entwines itself with the Davidson River like twisted monofilament line. Every so often, I can hear what resembles a TV signal gone to snow, its static growing louder. It’s the river, crashing over a cataract or blasting through a gauntlet of boulders, its sound pouring into my pickup cab.
I drive on, past picnic tables and campgrounds, past fishing holes and swimming holes, past the great granite rampart of Looking Glass Rock, past the photogenic Looking Glass Falls. I stop for a browse through the Cradle of Forestry Discovery Center, where one can learn all about the history of the national forests and forest management in America. At its apex, U.S. Highway 276 crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and descends into Haywood County, named for a longtime state treasurer.
The road becomes narrower here, the traffic sparser, with most of the sightseers siphoned onto the parkway. I feel comfortable enough to stop the truck in the middle of the double lane, kill the engine, and listen to the whisper of the woods. The hush is brief, as the hiss of rolling rubber and internal combustion from several curves away signals that it is time for me to move on.
U.S. Highway 276 weaves along East Fork Pigeon River, snuggling up to the foot of Cold Mountain, a 6,030-foot hump made famous by the best-selling novel and movie of the same name. The land in this river valley is more settled and less touristy than it is along the Transylvania County stretch of 276. I drive into Cruso — “9 Miles of Friendly People Plus 1 Old Crab,” the sign informs me. Houses and churches built of stone dot the roadsides. Rolling, rocky pastures with round bales of hay add stamps of green to the warm-colored woodlands. Suspension footbridges — classic Appalachia — span the river.
The highway worms its way through apple orchards as it approaches Waynesville, a well-scrubbed town in the welcoming arms of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its Main Street is lined with antiques stores, espresso shops, restaurants, even a dog-treat bakery. A man dressed in overalls and sitting on a bench plays the banjo, that authentic old-time sound born of these Southern mountains. His name is Tim Bradley, and when I ask him to tell me about himself, I think he may start singing the blues. “I was born cold, tired, wet, naked, hungry, broke, couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, couldn’t control my bodily functions, didn’t have no teeth,” he says in a drawl. “Things had to get better, and they did.”
He’s a paper-mill worker, and he comes out here to get experience playing the banjo in front of people. “I’m not used to being around that many people unless there’s a judge or a preacher,” he says. For a few minutes, he has my full attention, and I toe-tap my approval.
From Waynesville, U.S. Highway 276 skirts past Maggie Valley and its chockablock amusement parks and hotels, and swells to four lanes before surrendering to Interstate 40. Interstates are great for hurrying, but they encourage us to get lost in our reveries and lose sight of the world beyond the right-of-way. U.S. Highway 276 is the sort of route that requires us to drive instead of being driven; to acknowledge every mile; to slow down, ease up, and stop to smell the woodsmoke.
My love of roads has spawned a tendency to personify them, to call them “old friends” or “daily companions.” I always thought 276 deserved more than its unceremonious end on I-40. At least mark it with a sign making a grand pronouncement: “Here Begins One of the Loveliest Drives in North Carolina.”
My own drive had me going back east again, to flatter, pinier lands. In foothills places like Morganton or Hickory or Shelby, I can look in the rearview mirror on clear days and see the mountains unfurled across the horizon. Somewhere deep in those folds is a wandering road that calls me back to the land of my longing.